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Divergent Blu-ray Review: Dystopia adventure offers mixed results

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Divergent Blu-ray

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If there’s one thing Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate know how to do it’s gobble up young adult novels for cinematic consumption. It happened with the Twilight series and then with The Hunger Games. The success of both franchises, especially the latter, sparked an interest in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. Both YA works share several similarities. Beginning with a dystopian future ruled by a government that makes itself out to be benevolent but is actually fascistic - a shared characteristic in both series - we also have a heroine that is pretty much a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. Throw in defined societal roles, factions as they are called in Divergent, and sprinkle in a little Harry Potter sorting hat action and you have the society being divided up based on level of skill.

When it was released in the spring I missed it in theaters, though I was familiar with the source material having seen the novel on display in many a bookstore and club market (i.e., Costco). While a modest hit theatrically, it didn’t quite catch fire (tongue firmly in cheek) like The Hunger Games and its sequel did. But it performed well enough to ensure that the rest of the stories be told cinematically as part of a multi-film franchise. Its performance on home video will only help the sequels. Nevertheless, it doesn’t disguise the fact that Divergent is plagued, feeling like the urban offshoot of The Hunger Games instead of something original.

Since Veronica Roth’s novel is geared for the YA crowd, in this case predominantly female, the themes of Divergent pertain to adolescence and human nature. In a post-Apocalyptic Chicago where order has been restored by dividing people into specific factions - not unlike navigating the lunchrooms in high school - we have five general groups: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intellectuals).

Our heroine, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), who later shortens it to Tris just cause, goes through the rites of passage of taking a required test to see the faction she truly belongs. But this daughter of two Abnegation parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) is an anomaly. She’s what they label “divergent,” a person whose psyche is a mixed stew of the different factions, specifically Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless. Knowing this, she takes the advice of her testing administrator (Maggie Q) and keeps it a secret. When Choosing Day arrives to pick factions, both Tris and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), surprise those in attendance by not choosing the faction of their parents. While the testing protocol may give an indication of what faction individuals are best suited, kids are not obligated to go with the results and allow free will in deciding their fates. Caleb chooses Erudite, while Tris decides to Sara Bareilles her future by being brave and joins Dauntless.

Tris’ choice of Dauntless sees Divergent replicate moments from Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game and any number of scenarios involving teenagers involved in military training (marksmanship, throwing knives, hand-to-hand combat). It has a purpose, to show Tris’ making her way up the ranks in order to ensure she remains Dauntless. Those who fail to meet the requirements ultimately become “factionless,” which is this dystopia’s version of being homeless - because everything is cool when you’re part of a team (Thanks, Lego Movie!). There’s no place for individualism here.

She has a hard-ass for a training commander named Four (Theo James), though he’s not as malicious as his lieutenant Eric (Jai Courtney, who I easily confuse for a more muscular Michael Rossenbaum - sorry Smallville fans). Even without reading the book it was easy to spot the plot that was brewing, including the romance that would develop. Other subplots include Tris dealing with a bullying nemesis named Peter (Miles Teller) that dissipates in extreme fashion in the final third of the film.

Everything is perfunctory but the third act is more interesting when mind control is utilized. Tris and Four attempt to work together to thwart a huge conspiracy that plays a little too close to Nazis rounding up Jews for extermination. In this case, instead of Hitler we have Kate Winslet. Seems fair. She did, after all, win an Oscar for a role in which her character was a guard at a Nazi concentration camp (The Reader).

This description makes it sound that I didn’t enjoy Divergent, which is further from the truth. It may lack originality and runs a little long (some of Tris with Dauntless could have been encapsulated with a montage), it still has a few bright spots. Shailene Woodley brings a nice vulnerability to Tris, so to see her go from a runs-her-mouth teenager to steely freedom fighter is remarkable. Winslet is good in her limited hierarchical role, much like Donald Sutherland in The Hunger Games. And for the astute viewer you can laugh at seeing Woodley and Ansel Elgort as brother and sister, and Woodley and Miles Teller as rivals (she would play lovers to both men in The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now, respectively).

Looks at the bells and whistles of the Divergent Blu-ray release, it comes packaged with a DVD and digital code to download the movie and bring it on the road with you.In terms of supplements there are a pair of audio commentaries. The first is from director Neil Burger. Sporadic at times and sometimes spoon-feeding us information regarding plot, Burger kindly acknowledges the work of the cast and crew. Producers Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick are a chattier bunch as they discuss the casting process and the shoot overall. They also find humor in Woodley and Elgort playing lovers in The Fault in Our Stars after playing siblings in Divergent.

We move along to the EPK portion of the extras with Bringing Divergent To Life (47:17). Four featurettes make up this package and discusses adapting the novel for screen, casting and much more. Faction Before Blood is a fifteen-minute piece on the dystopia’s factions. Also included are four minutes of deleted scenes, a “Beating Heart” music video, and a marketing gallery that includes the film’s two theatrical trailers and poster gallery.

Maybe it was because I watched Divergent late one night in the comfort of my own home as opposed to taking in a matinee when it was theaters, but I didn’t think it wasn’t as horrible as some were making it out to be. While it does have the misfortune of being release after two Hunger Games movies, the foundation is there for an intriguing sequel. Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet are the standouts in this dystopian yarn, and even with its excess storytelling it makes for easy viewing, thus perennial rentals/streaming. Okay recommendation.

Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment present Divergent. Written by: Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Directed by: Neil Burger. Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, and Kate Winslet. Running time: 139 minutes. Rating: PG-13. Released: August 5, 2014.

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